North Korea ‘months away’ from ability to hit U.S. with nuclear weapon: U.S. envoy

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood (R) waits next to U.S. Army Captain Murzban Morris of the Departement of Defense Joint Staff before their address on North Korea to the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland August 30, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea is only months away from obtaining the capability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon and must be disarmed, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday, dismissing Pyonyang’s diplomatic thaw with South Korea as a “charm offensive” that fooled no one.

In a diplomatic showdown at a U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, North Korea responded by blaming Washington for escalating confrontation, saying it was deploying nuclear assets including aircraft carriers near the divided peninsula and was considering a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang.

“North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the Geneva forum.

“North Korean officials insist that they will not give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” he said.

A new U.S. nuclear policy review outlined last week “reaffirms that North Korea’s illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated, resulting in a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Asked later what the basis was for the assessment that North Korea would soon be able to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, he said he had “no new information to share”.

North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, twice last July. In November it tested the Hwasong-15, believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States. It is not yet believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

North Korea is under tightening U.N. Security Council sanctions for its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But recent weeks have seen a thaw with South Korea, after Pyongyang agreed to send athletes to compete in the Olympic Games opening on Feb. 9 in the south.

“CHARM OFFENSIVE”

“What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood told the talks.

He also said arsenals in China and Russia were expanding, drawing rebukes from their respective delegations.

“Russia, China and North Korea are growing their stockpiles, increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and – in some cases – pursuing the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other peaceful nations,” Wood said.

“We are not going to stick our head in the sand, we are going to respond to these growing challenges,” he later told reporters.

North Korea accused the United States of seeking to aggravate the situation on the divided peninsula by “deploying large nuclear assets” nearby, laying the ground for a possible pre-emptive strike against it.

“In view of the nature and scale of U.S. military reinforcements, they are designed to make a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol told the talks, referring to his country’s official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“U.S. officials including the defense secretary and the CIA director repeatedly talked about DPRK nuclear and missile threat to justify their argument for a military option and a new concept of a so-called ‘bloody nose’, a limited pre-emptive strike on the DPRK is under consideration within the U.S. administration,” Ju said.

He said President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine and U.S. nuclear superiority would endanger global peace and security and “trigger off a new nuclear arms race and could bring the whole world close to a horrible catastrophe”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff)

Turkey dismisses French marks on Syria campaign as ‘insults’

A Turkish Army vehicle leaves from a military post near the Turkish-Syrian border in Kilis province, Turkey January 31, 2018.

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey on Thursday dismissed cautionary remarks from France about its military operation in northern Syria as “insults”, signaling continued strain between Ankara and its NATO allies over the incursion.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday warned Turkey that the operation in the northern Afrin region should not become an excuse to invade Syria and that he wanted Ankara to coordinate its action with its allies.

Turkey launched the air and ground offensive, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch”, nearly two weeks ago to target the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin. But the incursion has put pressure on relations with the West, particularly the United States, which has backed the Kurdish fighters and has its own troops on the ground supporting them in other parts of Syria.

“We consider a country like France giving us reminders about an operation we are carrying out in accordance with international laws to be insults,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

“We are using our right to self defense, this is in line with UN Security Council decisions and not an invasion. They shouldn’t be two-faced,” he said.

France, like the United States, has extended arms and training to a YPG-led militia in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. That has infuriated Turkey, which considers the YPG terrorists and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast.

Cavusoglu said Syrian peace talks in Geneva needed to be revived, adding that the Syrian government needed to start negotiating in order to do so, after a Russian-sponsored conference on reaching peace in Syria was held this week in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

The talks, which Russia has called a Syrian Congress on National Dialogue, ended on Tuesday with a statement calling for democratic elections, but ignoring key opposition demands after a day marred by squabbles and heckling of the Russian foreign minister.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Peter Graff)

Iran stages pro-government rallies, cleric urges firm punishment for protest leaders

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Friday, swearing allegiance to the clerical establishment and accusing arch enemy the United States of instigating the largest anti-government protests in nearly a decade, state TV reported.

Tehran’s Friday prayer leader called on authorities to deal “firmly” with those responsible for igniting over a week of illegal rallies, in which 22 people were killed and more than 1,000 people were arrested, according to Iranian officials.

“But those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt with based on Islamic clemency,” cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran university, TV reported.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

The anti-government rallies erupted on December 28 in Iran’s holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad after the government announced plans to increase fuel prices and dismantle monthly cash handout to lower-income Iranians.

The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

The authorities have produced no evidence of U.S. involvement in the protests, which lacked a unifying leader.

GUARDS QUELLED UNREST

But in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Iran’s statements that external influences fomented the unrest were not groundless and Washington used any possible method to destabilize governments it disliked.

He added that U.S. calls for an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the turmoil in Iran interfered with the country’s sovereignty, news agency Interfax said. The Council will meet on Friday at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) to discuss Iran, Council president Kazakhstan has said.

Residents contacted by Reuters in various cities said the protests had shown sign of abating since Thursday, after the establishment intensified a crackdown on the protesters by dispatching Revolutionary Guards forces to several provinces.

Iran’s elite Guards and its affiliated Basij militia suppressed the country’s 2009 unrest over alleged election fraud, in which dozens of pro-reform Iranians were killed.

Iranian officials said the protests were the result of foreign instigation and mocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s support of protesters against what he called a “brutal and corrupt” establishment.

On Friday rallies, protesters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, carrying pictures of Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and waved Iranian flags.

Television footage of rallies in several cities showed people chanting “We support Imam Khamenei … We will not leave him alone in his fight against enemies”.

“Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind foreign-linked riots which insulted religion and our authorities,” state television reported, referring to the anti-government protests in which social media footage showed protesters tearing down pictures of Khamenei.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

UNITED FRONT

To allay tension, the government has suspended its plans to cut cash handouts and increase fuel prices.

“There are workers who say they have not received their salaries for months … These problems should be resolved,” Khatami said, according to state TV.

Fearing that further unrest could undermine the Islamic republic altogether, Iran’s faction-ridden political elite has displayed a united front.

But Khamenei and his hardline allies have criticized Rouhani for failing to revive the economy after most sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016 under a nuclear deal reached between Tehran and major powers aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear program.

Rouhani secured the deal in 2015, raising hopes of better economic times among many Iranians, but discontent has since risen over the lack of broad improvement in living standards.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)

Palestinians may seek U.N. Assembly support if U.S. vetoes Jerusalem resolution

A protester carries a Palestinian flag at the end of a demonstration against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital opposite to the American embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel December 12, 2017.

DUBAI (Reuters) – The Palestinian leadership may turn to the U.N. General Assembly if Washington vetoes a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to reaffirm Jerusalem’s status as unresolved, after President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize it as Israel’s capital.

The Palestinian United Nations envoy raised this option in remarks published in Saudi daily Arab News on Monday, ahead of a Security Council vote on an Egyptian-drafted resolution about Jerusalem’s status which the United States is expected to veto.

The draft says any “decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded”.

Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city has provoked widespread anger and protests among Palestinians as well as broad international criticism, including from top U.S. allies.

Israel says Jerusalem is its indivisible capital. It captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move never recognized internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state they seek in territory Israel captured a half century ago.

Arab News quoted Ambassador Riyad Mansour as saying that the Palestinians and Egyptians have worked closely with Security Council members while drafting the resolution to ensure that it gets overwhelming support.

“The Europeans in particular asked us to avoid terms like ‘denounce’ and ‘condemn,’ and not to mention the U.S. by name,” it quoted Mansour as saying. “We acceded to their request but kept the active clauses rejecting all changes to Jerusalem and the reaffirmation of previous decisions.”

Israel has long accused the United Nations of bias against it in its conflict with the Palestinians and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump’s move again on Sunday.

The Palestinians have the option of invoking a rarely-used article of the U.N. Charter that calls for parties to a dispute not to cast a veto, Arab News said. But, it said, they are more likely to take the issue to the General Assembly under Resolution 377A, known as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution.

Resolution 377A was passed in 1950 and used to authorize the deployment of U.S. troops to fight in the Korean war.

Mansour said Palestinians resorted to the “Uniting for Peace” resolution in the 1990s after Israel began building a settlement on Jabal Abut Ghnaim, a hilltop on occupied West Bank land south of Jerusalem, but left that session in suspension. However, they could seek a resumption of the session, he said.

“If the resolution is vetoed, the Palestinian delegation can send a letter to the U.N. Secretary General and ask him to resume the emergency session,” he said, according to Arab News.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syria investigator del Ponte signs off with a sting

Carla del Ponte, member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic attends a news conference into events in Aleppo at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 1, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Veteran prosecutor Carla del Ponte signed off from the United Nations Syria investigation on Monday by criticizing the U.N. Security Council and telling Syria’s ambassador his government had used chemical weapons.

The former Swiss attorney general, who went on to prosecute war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, said in August she was resigning from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria because of a lack of political backing.

Bidding farewell to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which set up the Commission of Inquiry six years ago, Del Ponte said she had quit out of frustration.

“We could not obtain from the international community and the Security Council a resolution putting in place a tribunal, an ad hoc tribunal for all the crimes that are committed in Syria,” she said.

“Seven years of crime in Syria and total impunity. That is not acceptable.”

Del Ponte told a Swiss newspaper last month enough evidence existed to convict President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes.

Her departure leaves only two remaining commissioners of the inquiry, Karen Koning AbuZayd and the chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, who said that eventually, a great many people would have to answer “as to why they did not act sooner to stop the carnage”.

“The deadlock at the Security Council on Syria is reprehensible and, at times, bewildering,” he told the Human Rights Council.

Leaving the council, del Ponte told Syria’s ambassador that she had been right to quickly reach the conclusion that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons during an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April.

“It was me, mister ambassador,” she said.

“I said that in my opinion and based on the elements we already had, the Syrian government was responsible. Today we have the confirmation after an official commission’s inquiry. So now, we ask for justice, we ask justice for those victims.”

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Cecile Mantovani; editing by Andrew Roche)

 

Korean peninsula draws range of military drills in show of force against North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard and Hyonhee Shin

BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – The U.S. military staged bombing drills with South Korea over the Korean peninsula and Russia and China began naval exercises ahead of a U.N. General Assembly meeting on Tuesday where North Korea’s nuclear threat is likely to loom large.

The flurry of military drills came after Pyongyang fired another mid-range ballistic missile over Japan on Friday and the reclusive North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3 in defiance of United Nations sanctions and other international pressure.

A pair of U.S. B-1B bombers and four F-35 jets flew from Guam and Japan and joined four South Korean F-15K fighters in the latest drill, South Korea’s defense ministry said.

The joint drills were being conducted “two to three times a month these days”, Defence Minister Song Young-moo told a parliamentary hearing on Monday.

In Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency said China and Russia began naval drills off the Russian far eastern port of Vladivostok, not far from the Russia-North Korea border.

Those drills were being conducted between Peter the Great Bay, near Vladivostok, and the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk, to the north of Japan, it said.

The drills are the second part of China-Russian naval exercises this year, the first part of which was staged in the Baltic in July. Xinhua did not directly link the drills to current tension over North Korea.

China and Russia have repeatedly called for a peaceful solution and talks to resolve the issue.

On Sunday, however, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the U.N. Security Council had run out of options on containing North Korea’s nuclear program and the United States might have to turn the matter over to the Pentagon.

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the most pressing task was for all parties to enforce the latest U.N. resolutions on North Korea fully, rather than “deliberately complicating the issue”.

Military threats from various parties have not promoted a resolution to the issue, he said.

“This is not beneficial to a final resolution to the peninsula nuclear issue,” Lu told a daily news briefing.

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed that North Korea will never be able to threaten the United States with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.

Asked about Trump’s warning last month that the North Korean threat to the United States would be met with “fire and fury”, Haley said: “It was not an empty threat.”

Washington has also asked China to do more to rein in its neighbor and ally, while Beijing has urged the United States to refrain from making threats against the North.

 

FUEL PRICES SURGE

The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a U.S.-drafted resolution a week ago mandating tougher new sanctions against Pyongyang that included banning textile imports and capping crude and petrol supply.

North Korea on Monday called the resolution “the most vicious, unethical and inhumane act of hostility to physically exterminate” its people, system and government.

“The increased moves of the U.S. and its vassal forces to impose sanctions and pressure… will only increase our pace toward the ultimate completion of the state nuclear force,” the North’s foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by its official KCNA news agency.

Gasoline and diesel prices in the North have surged since the latest nuclear test in anticipation of a possible oil ban, according to market data analyzed by Reuters on Monday.

The international community must remain united and enforce sanctions against North Korea after its repeated launch of ballistic missiles, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an editorial in the New York Times on Sunday.

Such tests were in violation of Security Council resolutions and showed that North Korea could now target the United States or Europe, he wrote.

Abe also said diplomacy and dialogue would not work with North Korea and concerted pressure by the entire international community was essential to tackle the threats posed by the north and its leader, Kim Jong Un.

However, the official China Daily argued on Monday that sanctions should be given time to bite and that the door must be left open to talks.

“With its Friday missile launch, Pyongyang wanted to give the impression that sanctions will not work,” it said in an editorial. “Some people have fallen for that and immediately echoed the suggestion, pointing to the failure of past sanctions to achieve their purpose.

“But that past sanctions did not work does not mean they will not. It is too early to claim failure because the latest sanctions have hardly begun to take effect. Giving the sanctions time to bite is the best way to make Pyongyang reconsider,” the newspaper said.

Pyongyang has launched dozens of missiles as it accelerates a weapons program designed to provide the ability to target the United States with a powerful, nuclear-tipped missile.

It says such programs are needed as a deterrent against invasion by the United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. On Saturday, it said it aimed to reach an “equilibrium” of military force with the United States.

The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce and not a peace treaty.

 

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Hyonhee Shin and Soyoung Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait and Simon Cameron-Moore)

 

France says powers must impose transition on Syrians, no role for Assad

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends a conference of Italian ambassadors in Rome, Italy July 24, 2017.

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s foreign minister said on Friday he wanted major powers to agree on a transition plan that would be imposed on Syrians, but ruled out any role for President Bashar al-Assad, who he said had “murdered” part of his population.

Jean-Yves Le Drian’s comments come despite what has appeared to be a softening in Paris’ position since the arrival of President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron’s election victory gave Paris, which is a key backer of the Syrian opposition and the second-largest contributor to the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, a chance to re-examine its Syria policy.

Macron proposed dropping demands Assad step down as a pre-condition for talks, although French officials still insist he cannot be the long-term future for Syria.

Le Drian, defence minister under former president Francois Hollande, said the anticipated defeat of Islamic State militants meant there was an opportunity for a compromise. More than 300,000 people have died in six years of fighting and millions more have fled Syria.

“He (Assad) cannot be part of the solution. The solution is to find with all the actors a calendar with a political transition that will enable a new constitution and elections,” Le Drian told RTL radio.

“This transition cannot be done with Bashar al-Assad who murdered part of his population and who has led millions of Syrians to leave” their homeland, he said.

Critics accused the Hollande administration of intransigence over Assad’s future, although it later said Assad would have to leave only once a transition process was complete.

 

CONTACT GROUP

That position has put France at odds with Russia and Iran, who back Assad and say the Syrian people should decide their own future.

While Britain has said Assad must go, diplomats say the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has yet to outline a vision for a political process in Syria and is focusing primarily on defeating Islamic State and countering Iran.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP news agency in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 13, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP news agency in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 13, 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

The U.N. Security Council has already adopted a Syria transition roadmap and two diplomats said the latest French idea was to get the five permanent members of the council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – to agree first how to move forward.

The Security Council would then bring into fold the main regional powers, although diplomats said it was pointless without Iran’s involvement. There were also questions on how to win U.S. support given the Trump administration’s staunch anti-Iranian position.

“That’s what we want to do now even before Assad leaves. We do that independently because if we wait for the Syrians to agree we will wait a long time and there will be thousands more dead,” Le Drian said.

Macron has said the initiative would begin to see light during the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September.

Le Drian has previously said the contact group would aim to help U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva. They have stalled in large part due to the weakness of opposition groups and the Assad government’s refusal to enter substantive negotiations, given its strong position on the ground.

The last major international attempt to resolve the crisis ended in failure when the International Syria Support Group, which included Iran, was disbanded after Syrian government forces retook the rebel stronghold of Aleppo in 2015.

 

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Jon Boyle)

 

U.S. aims for U.N. vote on North Korea sanctions within weeks

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley directs comments to the Russian delegation at the conclusion of a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the recent ballistic missile launch by North Korea at U.N. headquarters in New York

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley aims to put to a vote within weeks a U.N. Security Council resolution to impose stronger sanctions on North Korea over its long-range ballistic missile test, said several senior U.N. diplomats.

Haley told some U.N. diplomats late last week of the ambitious timeline for a U.N. response to North Korea’s launch on Tuesday of a missile that some experts believe could have the range to reach Alaska, and parts of the U.S. West Coast.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations was not immediately available to comment on the timeline for a council vote. Some Security Council diplomats have expressed doubt that a draft resolution could be put to a vote quickly.

Following a nuclear weapons test by North Korea in September, while U.S. President Barack Obama was still in office, it took the U.N. Security Council three months to agree to strengthened sanctions.

The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14. North Korea appeared to have used a Chinese truck, originally sold for hauling timber, but converted for military use, to transport and erect the missile on Tuesday.

The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14. North Korea appeared to have used a Chinese truck, originally sold for hauling timber, but converted for military use, to transport and erect the missile on Tuesday.
KCNA/via REUTERS

The United States gave China a draft resolution to impose stronger sanctions on Pyongyang after the 15-member Security Council met on Wednesday to discuss the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, diplomats said.

China’s U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi told Reuters on Monday that it was important to ensure that any action the Security Council might take should be conducive to achieving the goal of a denuclearized, peaceful and stable Korean peninsula.

“We really must think very carefully about what is the best approach in the Security Council because a resolution, sanctions, are themselves not an objective,” he said.

When asked if the council could act within weeks, Liu said it would depend on how members “see the way forward in terms of council action, in terms of how that is put into the wider context of … improving the situation, preventing further tests, ensuring Security Council resolutions will be abided by.”

Traditionally, the United States and China have negotiated new sanctions on North Korea before formally involving other council members. Diplomats said the United States would informally keep Britain and France in the loop, while China was likely talking to Russia.

The United States, China, Russia, Britain and France are the Security Council’s permanent veto-wielding powers. The United States could also face a battle to persuade Russia that council action against North Korea is needed.

On Thursday, Russia objected to a council condemnation of North Korea’s missile launch because the U.S.-drafted statement labeled it an ICBM, a designation Moscow disagrees with. Diplomats said that negotiations on the statement had stalled.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs and the council has ratcheted up the measures in response to the country’s five nuclear weapons tests and two long-range missile launches.

During the Security Council meeting last Wednesday, Haley said some options to strengthen U.N. sanctions were to restrict the flow of oil to North Korea’s military and weapons programs, increasing air and maritime restrictions and imposing targeted sanctions on senior officials.

Diplomats said Washington proposed such options to Beijing two months ago, but that China had not engaged in discussions on the measures and instead only agreed to adding some people and entities to the existing U.N. sanctions list in June.

 

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by James Dalgleish)

 

North Korea fires Scud-class ballistic missile, Japan protests

People watch a television broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea,

By Jack Kim and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired at least one short-range ballistic missile on Monday that landed in the sea off its east coast, the latest in a fast-paced series of missile tests defying world pressure and threats of more sanctions.

The missile was believed to be a Scud-class ballistic missile and flew about 450 km (280 miles), South Korean officials said. North Korea has a large stockpile of the short-range missiles, originally developed by the Soviet Union.

Monday’s launch followed two successful tests of medium-to-long-range missiles in as many weeks by the North, which has been conducting such tests at an unprecedented pace in an effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the mainland United States.

North Korea was likely showing its determination to push ahead in the face of international pressure to rein in its missile program and “to pressure the (South Korean) government to change its policy on the North,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said.

It was the third ballistic missile test launch since South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae-in took office on May 10 pledging to engage with the reclusive neighbor in dialogue.

Moon says sanctions alone have failed to resolve the growing threat from the North’s advancing nuclear and missile program.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference after the launch of a North Korean missile at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference after the launch of a North Korean missile at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official residence in Tokyo, Japan May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The missile reached an altitude of 120 km (75 miles), Roh said.
“The assessment is there was at least one missile but we are analyzing the number of missiles,” he said.

North Korea, which has conducted dozens of missile tests and tested two nuclear bombs since the beginning of 2016 in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, says the program is necessary to counter U.S. aggression.

The White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed about the launch. The U.S. Pacific Command said it tracked what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile for six minutes and assessed it did not pose a threat to North America.

The United States has said it was looking at discussing with China a new U.N. Security Council resolution and that Beijing, North Korea’s main diplomatic ally and neighbor, realizes time was limited to rein in its weapons program through negotiations. [nL4N1IS196]

Trump portrayed the missile test as an affront to China in a morning post on Twitter. “North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile…but China is trying hard!” he wrote.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, asked what a military conflict with North Korea might look like if diplomacy failed, warned on Sunday it would be “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes”.

“The North Korean regime has hundreds of artillery cannons and rocket launchers within range of one of the most densely populated cities on Earth, which is the capital of South Korea,” Mattis told CBS news program “Face the Nation”.

“And in the event of war, they would bring danger to China and to Russia as well,” he said.

TESTING NEW CAPABILITIES

China reiterated that U.N. Security Council resolutions had “clear rules” about North Korean missile activities and it urged Pyongyang not to contravene them.

“The situation on the Korean peninsula is complex and sensitive, and we hope all relevant sides maintain calm and exercise restraint, ease the tense situation as soon as possible and put the issue back onto the correct track of peaceful dialogue,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Russia condemned the launch and also called for restraint, “including toward military activity,” from the partners it was working with, the RIA news agency quoted a deputy Russian foreign minister as saying.

Japan lodged a protest against the test missile, which appeared to have landed in its exclusive economic zone.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed action along with other nations to deter Pyongyang’s repeated provocations.

“As we agreed at the recent G7, the issue of North Korea is a top priority for the international community,” Abe told reporters in brief televised remarks. “Working with the United States, we will take specific action to deter North Korea.”

Seoul’s new liberal administration has said Pyongyang’s repeated test launches were dashing hopes for peace.

South Korea’s Moon called a meeting of the National Security Council, South Korea’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

North Korea last test-fired a ballistic missile on May 21 off its east coast and said on Sunday it had tested a new anti-aircraft weapon supervised by leader Kim Jong Un. [nL3N1IU014]

It has tested Scud-type short-range missiles many times in the past, most recently in April, according to U.S. officials. However, experts say it may be trying to test new capabilities that may be fed into its efforts to build an ICBM.

“There are many possibilities … It could have been a test for a different type of engine. Or to verify the credibility of the main engine for ICBM’s first stage rocket,” said Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Far Eastern Studies department in Seoul.

Modified versions of the Scud have a range of up to 1,000 km (620 miles).

On Tuesday, the United States will test an existing missile defense system to try to intercept an ICBM, the first such test, officials said last week.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, William Mallard in TOKYO, Soyoung Kim and Christine Kim in SEOUL, and

Trump: Time to remove ‘blindfolds’; U.N. must ready new North Korea sanctions

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump pose for a photograph before attending dinner at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida,

By Steve Holland and Ben Blanchard

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday the U.N. Security Council must be prepared to impose new sanctions on North Korea, amid escalating tensions over its missile and nuclear programs, saying people had acted as if “blindfolded” for decades on a big problem that finally needed to be solved.

“The status quo in North Korea is also unacceptable,” Trump told a meeting of U.N. Security Council ambassadors at the White House, held at a time of mounting concern that North Korea may be preparing a sixth nuclear bomb test.

“The council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Trump said.

“This is a real threat to the world, whether we want to talk about it or not. North Korea is a big world problem and it’s a problem that we have to finally solve,” he said. “People put blindfolds on for decades and now it’s time to solve the problem.”

Trump gave no indication as to when new sanctions should be imposed on North Korea. U.S. officials say his administration has been debating whether they should be held as response to any new North Korean missile or nuclear test, or imposed as soon as they can be agreed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier called for all sides to exercise restraint in a telephone call about North Korea with Trump, as Japan conducted exercises with a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group headed for Korean waters.

Angered by the approach of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group, a defiant North Korea, which has carried on nuclear and missile tests in defiance of successive rounds of U.N. sanctions, said on Monday the deployment was “an extremely dangerous act by those who plan a nuclear war to invade”.

“The United States should not run amok and should consider carefully any catastrophic consequence from its foolish military provocative act,” Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said in a commentary on Monday.

Two Japanese destroyers have joined the carrier group for exercises in the western Pacific, and South Korea said on Monday it was also in talks about holding joint naval exercises.

Worry that North Korea could be preparing to conduct another nuclear test or launch more ballistic missiles has increased as it prepares to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday.

It has marked similar events in the past with nuclear tests or missile launches.

Trump has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile and has said all options are on the table, including a military strike.

China is North Korea’s sole major ally but it has been angered by its nuclear and missile programs and is frustrated by its belligerence.

China has repeatedly called for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and is worried the situation could spin out of control, leading to war and a chaotic collapse of its isolated, impoverished neighbor.

Trump, in his phone call with Xi, criticized North Korea’s “continued belligerence” and emphasized that its actions “are destabilizing the Korean peninsula”, the White House said.

“The two leaders reaffirmed the urgency of the threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and committed to strengthen coordination in achieving the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” it said.

Xi told Trump China resolutely opposed any actions that ran counter to U.N. resolutions, China’s foreign ministry said.

China “hopes that all relevant sides exercise restraint, and avoid doing anything to worsen the tense situation”, the Chinese ministry said in a statement, paraphrasing Xi.

The call between the presidents was the latest manifestation of their close communication, which was good for their countries and the world, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said.

‘FULLY READY’

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, speaking on NBC’s “Today” program, said the United States and the international community were maintaining pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but were “not trying to pick a fight with him”.

Asked whether a preemptive strike was under consideration, she said: “We are not going to do anything unless he gives us reason to do something.”

“If you see him attack a military base, if you see some sort of intercontinental ballistic missile, then obviously we’re going to do that. But right now, we’re saying ‘don’t test, don’t use nuclear missiles, don’t try and do any more actions’, and I think he’s understanding that. And China’s helping really put that pressure on him.”

Trump also spoke by telephone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“We agreed to strongly demand that North Korea, which is repeating its provocation, show restraint,” Abe later told reporters. “We will maintain close contact with the United States, keep a high level of vigilance and respond firmly.”

Envoys on the North Korean nuclear issue from the United States, South Korea and Japan are due to meet in Tokyo on Tuesday.

The U.S. government has not specified where the carrier strike group is but U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Saturday it would arrive “within days”.

South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun gave no details about plans to join the U.S. carrier group for exercises, but said Seoul was holding discussions with the U.S. Navy.

“The South Korean and U.S. militaries are fully ready for North Korea’s nuclear test,” Moon said.

South Korean and U.S. officials have feared for some time that North Korea’s sixth nuclear test could be imminent.

Satellite imagery analyzed by 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, found some activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site last week.

However, the group said it was unclear whether the site was in a “tactical pause” before another test or was carrying out normal operations.

Adding to the tension, North Korea detained a U.S. citizen on Saturday as he attempted to leave the country.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick, Susan Heavey and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Takashi Umekawa and Linda Sieg in Tokyo, James Pearson in Seoul, and Philip Wen, Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel and James Dalgleish)